The couple walks into their home, eyes closed, each holding a hand of their guide.
They step over the threshold of French doors into a small hallway and then into a large, airy, high-ceilinged room. They step carefully and smile nervously. She is pregnant.
Their guide wears white overalls and a green baseball cap pulled tight over blond hair. She’s tall, even more so in a pair of wooden block heels, with the long, lean build of the top-level track-and-field runner she was in college. She backs the couple into the big room. And then, just as we’re ready for the big reveal, the video cuts to her doing the work.
What follows is a montage that shows a home going from bland white modern to cozy but still modern. In quick-cut frames, various rooms in the home are shown getting a contemporary farmhouse treatment. Lots of wood – shelves, tables, a striking three-paneled wooden plant wall, rustic but contemporary throughout. The most ambitious single part is the new fireplace, which goes in that high-ceilinged family room.
Once the cold-white-home-to-comfy-modern-farmhouse montage is over, we’re back where we started – with our guide holding the hands of the people who live here.
“Thank you guys for reaching out to me almost a year ago,” says the guide, Galey Alix. “You were so patient, you were so kind. After I say three, open your eyes. OK, are you guys ready? Uno, dos, tres!”
Erroll and Erika Castrillo look. He puts his hand to his mouth. So does she. Then she puts a hand to her eyes, to wipe away tears. It looks like Galey briefly does the same. They’re staring. Pointing. There’s a big group hug. He seems overcome as well.
Later, Erika will say that her husband’s not the kind of guy to show a lot of emotion, and that made that moment even more special. “For him to have reacted that way, I’m so glad to have captured that in video because that alone will be a memory for me,” she says.
If you’re one of the 1.6 million people who follows Galey Alix on Instagram, you’ve seen this. The nervous, eyes-shut homeowners. The cut away to all the work that’s happened. The build-up, followed by the reveal.
But as with any compelling story, the emotional payoff works even if you know it’s coming. The world of social media gets criticized for sometimes prioritizing style over substance, but there’s a substantial amount of labor that goes into Galey’s stylish results. It gets distilled into a fun, short montage for the final video, but there’s plenty of heavy lifting and first-thing-in-the-morning Home Depot runs that the Instagram viewer mostly never sees.
“I feel like I learn every day from her,” says Galey’s intern, Monica Bustos. “She pays attention to so many details. When I walked into this world of Galey, she said, ‘On my team we don’t cut corners.’”
Galey’s not quite able to offer specifics just yet, but soon, those emotional payoffs and that attention to detail could lead to the announcement of an even bigger media project. Oh, and it’s probably worth noting at this point that home design and renovation is Galey’s side hustle.
During weekday working hours, Galey Alix is Galey Alix Gravenstein, a vice president and regional director for Goldman Sachs. She spends her days in the high-pressure world of finance, and then when it’s time to … OK, “relax” is not the right word. But when it’s time to do something else, she gets the keys to people’s houses and sets about doing the work that’s going to make them cry on Instagram.
Galey has no background in design. She didn’t study it, didn’t major in it while an undergraduate at the University of Florida, is not in any way technically trained in it. The first house she ever worked on was her own.
She and her boyfriend got engaged and bought a Connecticut dream home. It was a busy time for Galey; she was working in Florida and flying up to the Northeast on weekends. She had plans for the home, but she couldn’t find workers who would come on Saturdays and Sundays, when she was there.
“So I was like, I’ll figure out how to design it myself,” she says. “And sure enough, I decorated a 10,000-square-foot home by myself without any design experience.”
Her collegiate sports training meant she knew how to endure physically hard work. And she was enjoying the work, videoing her fiancé in each room as she finished it, enjoying making the perfect home for their new, perfect life.
But she wasn’t taking care of herself.
As her wedding day neared, she began to realize what was going wrong. She had developed an eating disorder.
“I was trying to do too many things and trying to be perfect and the best at all of it,” she says. She told her fiancé about the eating disorder, thinking this would be a way to get help. Instead, he told her to go back to Florida. Several months later, there was a wedding in the Connecticut dream house – him and another woman.
In Florida, Galey was at her lowest.
But it wasn’t the first time she’d been in a new situation where the only option was to adapt.
Welcome to the Deep End
Division 1 collegiate sports is an elite business. If you want to compete for, say, the Florida Gators in your sport of choice, it helps to have been practicing free throws or the breaststroke since early elementary school, preferably with plenty of elite coaching through the years.
Galey ran track and cross-country for the Gators. And the first competitive cross-country event she ever participated in – as in, at any level and any time in her life – was wearing Gators blue and orange in the Southeastern Conference championships.
As a child and teenager she’d been a top athlete, but her sports were soccer and volleyball. At the University of Florida she walked onto the track and field team and, in her first year, impressed the coaches. By the time the conference finals rolled around, they needed her on the squad.
“I created a running career out of nothing,” she says. “All the girls on the team were elite, state champions and nationally ranked in high school. I felt like an imposter standing next to these girls at the starting line.”
It’s a theme that’s run throughout her life.
“Somehow I keep finding myself in these positions where I do things that I don’t really feel like I have the right to be doing,” Galey says. “I’m just not afraid to put myself out there and potentially fail because I have no experience.”
She majored in public relations, thinking she wanted law school. She graduated, went to Barnes & Noble, bought the LSAT study guide, cracked it open at her parents’ house, got 20 seconds in and thought “nope.”
“I took the book back, got my $180 back, which was a big deal, and got an entry level job in a call center in St. Petersburg.”
The job paid $26k a year; to save money, she bought whole milk and made it last longer by cutting it with water. (She thought at the time that this just made it skim milk.) She taught herself how the market works, learned the rules and regulations and got the relevant licenses. Within a year and a half she’d talked her way into a job at Goldman Sachs. She stopped adding water to her milk.
Her method for getting ahead was straightforward. She started before others did, worked through lunch and never really stopped. “I hustled, I hustled, I hustled,” she says. “They saw that there was a different kind of hustle in me and if I needed to know something, I’d figure it out.”
It was also during this period that she got engaged and started making the regular commutes between Connecticut and Florida. On paper and on social media, everything looked amazing: the beautiful former track star with the prestigious job, the fiancé, the dream house she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty designing herself. It was all perfect, right up until the moment when it wasn’t.
Back in Florida, her marriage off and her dream home soon to become someone else’s, Galey hit bottom. “I went through some really, really dark periods there,” she says. She began seeing a therapist and a nutritionist, and slowly began to recover.
Meanwhile, something else was happening.
As she’d worked on the Connecticut house, she’d videoed everything. She put the videos up on the internet, mostly just to show friends and whoever might be interested. It wasn’t anything big. But as she healed, the videos started to take off. And people started reaching out, asking for help with their homes.
So instead of crying at home and feeling unworthy, she started saying yes to strangers and trying to make their houses feel the way she’d wanted hers to.
“Every time somebody trusts you with their home and their life savings, you can’t help but feel like you’re worthy,” she says. “I have never done anything so rewarding in my life.”
Home & Healing
Monica Bustos looked at her Instagram hero’s post seeking an intern and thought about all the reasons it wouldn’t work.
“I looked at that post literally all day long,” Monica says. “I thought of all the reasons why I would never get that. I was married at the time, I had a daughter, I had a full-time job.” Her husband had gone back to school, a decision she supported. And yet, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“I was one of her biggest fans,” she says. “I was inspired by her; I daydreamed about doing what she does. I was so obsessed with her work and what she represents.”
Eventually she decided she had to at least try.
“I spent the entire day composing something to write to Galey regarding the internship,” she says. “I finished at around 9:30 at night. I said what the heck, let me send it, what are the chances she’d see it.”
When Galey responded saying she’d like to meet, Monica still didn’t believe anything would come of it. “But I wanted to meet her so bad that I said, ‘Yes, I’m available.’ I moved mountains, made sure I had a babysitter, made sure I could meet her.”
Four days after the meeting, Galey called Monica. That was more than a year ago, and Monica’s frequent appearances in the videos tell you all you need to know about how she’s fit in with Team Galey.
Galey helped give her the confidence to quit the job she’d had for 15 years and get a better one. There was also Monica’s divorce. “She was probably the second person I told,” Monica says. Galey asked her to come over, saying she needed help with something. Instead they went for a walk.
“It turned into a three-hour walk down Fort Lauderdale Beach, just talking,” Monica says. “And I didn’t realize how much I needed that. That was the nicest thing anybody had ever done.
“When we got back I was sweaty, I was tired. I was exhausted. But I also felt so relieved and so energetic. I didn’t come back the same way I left.”
Later on, after the separation was complete, Monica herself was also on the receiving end of the Galey treatment. She’d gone with her daughter to Disney, and Galey conspired with her sister to get into her apartment and work on a room that hadn’t been used much recently. Her ex had taken their daughter’s bedroom set to his new place so she’d have something familiar there, and at the old place her daughter had started sleeping in Monica’s room. The former child’s bedroom sat unused and, for Monica, a reminder. She wanted to turn it into a playroom, but she just couldn’t.
“That room represented the separational part of my family,” Monica says. When she went in there, it hurt. So Galey did her thing. The result, of course, is captured on video.
Monica laughs when she describes it now; the viewer, she explains, gets her full-on ugly cry.
“It’s just such a bundle of feelings that kicked in at that moment,” she says. “I cried. That was a real surprise. In no way did I think Galey was in my house.
“She really loves hard. If I had to describe her, it’s as simple as that. She loves hard. I think she has a great passion for what she does.”
Doing the Work
Single men of Fort Lauderdale, here is some important information. If you ever find yourself paying a social call on Galey Alix, heed these four words of advice: Bro, lose the roses.
“If I’m dating somebody and he brings me red roses, I’m like, ‘You don’t get me, dude,’” she says.
And orange carnations? Buddy, why don’t you just key her car while you’re at it?
“I’m going to look past the fact that these were dyed in a cup, but I’m noting that you thought I’d like orange flowers,” she says.
Listen to the story of how Galey got into design and watch the results on social media, and you might be led to believe that her main tool is a box of tissues for all the crying that’s going to happen. But the hugging and the video magic doesn’t happen without the design skill and the labor. When it comes to that, Galey the self-taught designer doesn’t have too many iron-clad rules. But she does have three forbidden colors. The colors red, yellow and orange never ever get used in her designs. They are, she says, not soothing. They’re harsh. They look bad on the wall and – dudes, write this down – they look bad in a vase.
A home, she says, is a place where you can relax. Red conjures up rush hour. Yellow is caution. Orange is the unfortunate child of red and yellow. “I implore you to look deep down into my Instagram and see if I ever use (those three colors),” Galey says. (Reader, she does not.)
In fact, Galey might be the only woman this side of Wednesday Addams who would be happier receiving a bouquet of dried flower stems. Or you could follow the clue she gives in an Instagram image. “This is Wainscoting. The actual way to my heart,” reads the caption to a picture of her pointing at, well, some wainscoting.
But if the three forbidden colors are a definite rule, much of the rest of Galey’s work is governed by what is in front of her in the moment. The style for every project she works on is that project’s unique style. She doesn’t arrive, think “Mid-Century Modern,” and then only allow Mid-Century Modern into the space. She goes by instinct, and by talking to the client.
“Galey Alix design is all-encompassing,” she says. “Each project is very specifically designed for that client.”
The process can be a daunting one, both for Galey and the client. It works like this. People reach out through Instagram. She shows up and asks a bunch of questions. “And then I don’t tell them a single thing and I get their credit card and that’s it. I don’t really talk to them again, and they wait and they wait.”
Meanwhile, she goes to the house every weekend and stays up to 3 or 4am during the week thinking about it. Hundreds if not thousands of pieces are brought in. Everything is covered with blankets – no peeking, clients. Then the clients move out for two days at the end, and she’s got 48 hours to completely transform the space.
When she met the Castrillos, for example, they really only gave her broad ideas for what they wanted. Son Michael turns 2 in May, which is also when daughter Allison is due. So they wanted a place that looks good, but that also has plenty of storage and wipes clean easily. Galey came in, asked some questions, stood in the space and got to work. The result still amazes Erika Castrillo.
“I reach out to her every now and then and say ‘You’ve thought of everything,’” she says. “She really thought of every nook and corner. She just exceeded the expectations. We would have her back in a heartbeat.”
It’s hard work for Galey, particularly that all-out blitz at the end.
“It is the most physically taxing thing I have ever done in my life, and this is coming from someone who ran 106 miles every six days,” she says. “I just so badly want to prove to them why they took a chance on me. I want to prove to them why they took me blindly.”
The Goldman Sachs exec and former college runner approaches this as she approached those – as the outsider who has to work harder and prove herself.
“You would think that it’s a calming artistic flow, but it actually feels exactly like all those other winding, tortuous roads I’ve traveled.”
But then there’s the payoff. Today she says she’s grateful for all the experiences that got her here, including the worst ones. A more terrible thought: believing she went through the pain and that it ended up being all for nothing. Instead she has skill sets now that she did not have before. She has a meaning and a calling she did not have before.
“Give your pain a purpose,” she says.
“I think failure is a beautiful thing. Without failure you don’t get to see yourself be strong and pick yourself back up again. For me, I am used to succeeding. I am an overachiever by default.”
Getting dumped and leaving your dream house is not how feel-good movies turn out. But Galey’s not complaining.
“I actually turned it into the biggest victory of my life,” she says. “I look back and I think that wasn’t a failure; that was my biggest success, that was my rebirth. I think the only failure in life is failure to try.”